Thursday, November 24, 2011


Ours is a time of nostalgia, of man-children, of, well, arrested development. Technology has made it ever easier to revisit the formative media of our youth, leading to a decade defined less by the new boundaries charted in popular culture as it is the repackaging of the old: the mash-up, the homage, the reboot, all of it done with a knowing self-awareness. Few pop culture sensations were ever so self-aware as the Muppets, and so they seem especially ripe for the treatment, especially considering more time has elapsed since their last movie, Muppets from Space, than the entire existence of the Spider-Man movie franchise, which is getting rebooted next summer.

The Muppets begins with an introduction to brothers Gary (Jason Segal) and Walter (voiced by Peter Linz). While Gary is a flesh and blood human, Walter is three feet high and made of felt and naturally becomes the Muppets’ biggest fan growing up. In the present day Walter still shares a bedroom with Gary, who has been in a relationship going on ten years with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams). Gary and Mary (wocka wocka wocka!) take a romantic trip to Hollywood, with Gary bringing Walter along so he can make a pilgrimage to the Muppet studio. Walter is horrified to find it all but abandoned and about to be turned over to scheming oil baron Tex Richman (an appropriately oily Chris Cooper). The only way to save the property is to get Kermit and the rest of the Muppets back together to put on a telethon and raise $10 million.

Obviously self-awareness and nostalgia are baked into The Muppets from the get-go. The entire premise resting on wistfulness for the good old days of Muppet domination, and many of the movie’s biggest beats—a melancholy look at a wall of photographs the gang with Jim Henson and a variety of celebrities, a spirited rendition of “Rainbow Connection” at the telethon—draws from its built-in audience’s fond memories.

Yet this is no lazy fan-service. The film hits the floor humming with an infectiously peppy musical number, “Life’s a Happy Song,” (written, as with all the other original songs for the movie by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie), and proceeds over the next two hours to fire off a barrage of jokes, largely cheeky, fourth-wall-busting bits, such as saving time by use of a montage or ‘traveling by map,’ but also celebrity cameos, awful puns, character bits, and more besides. (My favorite is a scene that involves a thesaurus.) The rapid clip brings to mind The Simpsons Movie, another (successful) effort to bring a wayward property back to what made it work in the first place.

The Muppets strikes a fair balance in appealing to the older audience members and those less familiar with the Muppet brand. Speaking for myself, I grew up on the Muppet Babies cartoon and have fond but distant memories of the Muppet Christmas Carol. I’m not exactly unbiased, but I still have enough objectivity not to give it a pass on nostalgia alone, and I had a shit-eating grin on my face the entire time. I don’t doubt that the film appeals to everyone in all the right ways, but whether it will get a chance to is another matter, going up as it is against the insipid Twilight juggernaut. A movie that does so much so well deserves to do well, but the half-filled theater I saw it in, containing mostly adults, isn’t promising.

The movie’s not completely perfect. Most of the principal muppets get at least a cameo bit, but surprisingly Rizzo the Rat doesn’t get to do anything but appear in the background, and Kermit’s nephew Robin doesn’t appear at all. The pacing flags in the middle, perhaps due to simple laughter fatigue, but likely because of a long stretch in which there are no songs to perk things up. At two hours it is quite long for a whimsical musical comedy, and with the shuffling around of a certain Gonzo gag the mostly unnecessary epilogue could have been easily cut.

But that's picking at nits. Mostly, The Muppets is a joy, and, coming at this particular moment, it is a most refreshing joy.

(Spoilers follow)

For the ending, undone by the aforementioned epilogue, is actually something of a downer. Tex Richman actually manages to stop the telethon at the last minute, gets the land rights, and kicks the muppets out of their old theater. But Kermit convinces them that they have nothing to be ashamed of, that they gave it their all, and then they go outside to find they’re famous anyway and everybody loves them again.

It’s a bit much, but it’s nice to see a movie that tries to surmount disappointment and failure, amid an ongoing economic malaise that have brought so much disappointment and failure to so many people. That this should be delivered by talking puppets that are aware they’re in a movie but not that they’re puppets is sort of ridiculous, and sort of sublime, but it’s always been so. The awareness that is equal parts sad-clown struggle and silly, anarchic boundary breaking, the adult wisdom and child-like optimism; these were Jim Henson's trademarks. They're what make Big Bird singing "It's Not Easy Being Green" at Henson's funeral, something that sounds ludicrous in concept, as incredibly moving as it was. It's what the world needs, more now than ever before.

The progress of our culture--currently consuming and reworking the past--is as uncertain as the economy on which it rests. With that in mind, one could scarce hope for a better examplar than a group of muppet chickens doing a buck-and-cluck cover of Cee Lo's obscenity-laden Motown throwback "Fuck You." To be able to get away from news on the impending collapse of the European Union, and settle briefly into The Muppets' company, is something for which we ought be thankful.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Abyss Gazes Also Into You

It feels like years have passed, but Troy Davis was only executed two months ago. His was one of the highest-profile death row cases in years and touched off considerable media discussion over the wrongfulness of the death penalty. Though the debate has tapered off in the time since, questions of law enforcement continue to be asked, largely prompted by brutal police responses to the various branches of Occupy Wall Street. The climate seemed ideal, then, for Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss, a documentary that deals with the fate of a convicted murderer. The film, though, seems more interested in the environment that created its troubled subject than in the subject itself. This it presents successfully and quite devastatingly in its own right, but in doing so it nearly loses the main thread. This isn't quite a bad thing.

The springboard for Herzog's meditation on death and its penalties is a triple homicide case committed in Conroe, Texas in 2001. Teenagers Michael Perry and Jason Burkett murdered 50 year-old Sandra Stotler, along with her son--their "friend"--Adam and his friend Jeremy Richardson, in order to take Stotler's expensive car for a joy ride. They were arrested after a protracted shootout and tried for the murders. While not containing a smoking gun, the evidence, as presented in the movie, is fairly credible: Perry confessed the murder of Stotler and directed authorities to the other two bodies, underneath one of which was a cigarette butt with his DNA.

Perry and Burkett are both evasive on the subject of the actual murders in their interviews; Burkett maintains his innocence but says little else, while Perry elides the subject altogether, merely saying he should have never gotten involved with Burkett (Perry's breezy sidestepping is seemingly, alarmingly, clinical; at his execution he forgave Stotler's family, for what they were doing to him). Both were found guilty, though only Perry was sentenced to die; Burkett is eligible for parole in 2041.

Herzog spends little time dealing with and resolving the murk, instead taking Perry and Burkett's guilt for granted and expanding the scope of the film's inquiry to include Conroe itself. Its third and best chapter, The Dark Side of Conroe, lays out a panorama of human wreckage so grim that it's little wonder something like this should have happened there.

Nearly everyone connected with the two murderers interviewed has been warped by violence, degradation, and death. Richardson's brother reveals that his father is incarcerated, and he himself violated the terms of his parole when he left Georgia to come to his brother's funeral, where he was arrested and sent back to prison. Lisa Stotler-Balloun, the daughter and sister of Sandra and Adam Stotler, details just how many family members she's lost in how many brief years. Jason Burkett's father, who will serve out the rest of his life serving a prison sentence and was able to convince two jurors not to have his son executed, recounts the most shameful, barrel-bottom-scraping moment of his life, in which he and his two sons had Thanksgiving dinner together in prison, all in shackles.

The film's bleakness is thankfully, not completely unremitting. There are bits of humor spread throughout, mostly deriving from Herzog's curious line of inquiry. The neighboring town is called Cut and Shoot. One Conroe resident, who was illiterate until he went to prison and learned to read and write letters to and from his family and friends, spends his interview chewing and spitting tobacco and has a priceless answer when asked what he would do with his tattoo of his girlfriend's name if he ever broke up with her. A Death Row chaplain tells a story about golf course squirrels that he poignantly ties into his work.

The most complete marriage of mirth and the monstrous is Burkett's wife. She is his appeal attorney; they fell in love while she filed his paperwork in the court system. She proclaims his innocence and takes a full rainbow she saw over the his prison gates as a sign from God that the two of them were meant to be together. She's carrying his child. Death casts a pall over even the most joyous of institutions and occasions.

The picture of Conroe thus portrayed is one of vicious poverty and omniscient violence, and is painted so vividly that Perry's impending death (he was interviewed only eight days before being administered a lethal injection) almost feels like an afterthought. Like Perry's guilt, the wrongness of his fate is taken to be similarly inarguable. A former prison chaplain, who quit following his ministry of Karla Faye Tucker, inveighs against the state-sanctioned killing of prisoners, and Burkett's father argues nothing is gained in Perry's death; even Stotler-Balloun, who felt more at ease after seeing Perry put to death, says that she would be fine knowing a murderer would simply be kept in jail the rest of his life.

After everything we have seen up to now, it's hard to argue. The murders of Jeremy Richardson and Sandra and Adam Stotler were not the first to afflict Conroe. Nor will they be the last. The problems besetting the community that help give rise to such atrocities are so enormous and deep-seeded as to render the now harmless Michael Perry beside the point. His killing by the state, seen in this light, is less a display of strength than impotence.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Little More on the Life of Rand

I suppose it would have behooved me to have read and commented on Anne C. Heller's Ayn Rand and The World She Made before Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. Burns' book states right in its subtitle it's focus on Rand's influence in the conservative movement and its libertarian offshoots. Heller keeps her eye on Rand's life and so paints a more detailed portrait of the ego queen. The details on Rand's early years in Russia--like how the hero of a French adventure story developed over her life from the subject of a girlhood crush to the prototype for the larger-than-life protagonists in her fiction, or the trivia bit that she was childhood friends with the sister of Vladamir Nabokov(!)--are particularly welcome, as are the details of some of her unpublished or unproduced works.

Perhaps the most interesting difference between the two books is the portrait of Rand's husband Frank O'Connor that emerges. He is still ultimately, acquiescent in her monomania, but he does not always remain silent. Mention is made of times when Frank would lose his temper with Rand, after which she would apologize profusely, so afraid was she of losing him. So troubled in fact was there marriage, that Rand had considered divorcing him during the long stretch of Atlas Shrugged's composition but did not want to upset her life while she was working on the novel (the virtue of selfishness made manifest). She was not the only one who considered it:

Once, during a vicious quarrel between the O'Connors in the presence of the Brandens, Frank walked out of the living room, into the bedroom. Barbara followed. She found him half sitting, half lying on the bed in an attitude of sorrow and defeat. "I want to leave her," he told Barbara, clutching her arm. "But where would I go?" Rand was the center of his life.

I'll have more to say about Rand's politics later.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Watching the Watchman

Funny things, critics. In the theater world they're widely loathed for their ability to kill a show with bad publicity, while in the cinema they are by turns ignored by the populace at large and used by the discerning to figure out what (not) to throw down $12 for. A 90+% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes is usually a good indicator of quality, and I have no doubt that the 3% afforded Adam Sandler's latest filmic atrocity is well-deserved. But J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood's most recent offering and the subject under present consideration, has been absolutely mauled, with a 41% appraisal that's at least better than the most recent Transformers, but is worse than the Hugh Jackman Rock'em Sock'em Robots movie. I'm calling it a distortion of the all-or-nothing "Fresh" or "Rotten" grading system, for while J. Edgar has enormous problems, it is still worth checking out.

So: the movie, with a script by gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, tells the storied tenure of J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), from his early days working in Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation in 1919 all the way through his death during the Nixon administration. In that time we see him bust up anarchists and gangsters, attempt to solve the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the Lindbergh baby, and listen in on the "intimate" moments of American giants Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Kennedy, and develop a closeted gay relationship with his Associate Director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). It does so by using a framing device, Hoover's dictation of a memoir manuscript, that lets the narrative jump back and forth in time.

Occasionally this is effective; by allowing Hoover's mother (Judi Dench) to remain in the picture far longer than she would have in a straightforward chronology, the shadow she casts over Hoover's life is more effectively conveyed. Likewise with Hoover's stunted homosexuality. More often than not, though, the device works to the movie's detriment (this is true also of the nested flashbacks used in Eastwoods Flags of Our Fathers). At 137 minutes it is long and feels long, largely because early on there is little narrative shape and drive. The jumping around feels arbitrary, with earlier threads (the Lindbergh baby in particular) started, dropped, and then picked up after another interlude has taken our attention. Some scenes as a result are dropped in for no other reason that they must go somewhere to set up some later payoff. A confrontation with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy over his brother's dalliances comes and goes and then isn't mentioned until JFK's assassination.

The movie's approach to its subject is weirdly schizoid. Certain themes and ideas are handled with sledgehammer subtlety, while others are understated or overcooked with such oddness that it goes back to being good again. Much of the depiction of Hoover and Tolson's relationship is sort of sweet, what with Tolson picking out his ties, and the two of them being surrounded by lad-and-lady couples at the horseraces, but the scene in which they bring their feelings out into the open has painfully on-the-nose dialogue ("You're a scared, heartless, horrible little man!") and plays like certain scenes from Brokeback Mountain without ever feeling as emotionally raw.

The other driving motif of the story, the frightening knowledge-as-power Hoover comes to accumulate in the name of the law, fares much more consistently better. A speech about morals eroding and evil flourishing is spoken over Richard Nixon's inauguration with the heaviest of hands; but this is spoken by Hoover, whose soul we've been watching disintegrate for two hours. It's wickedly ironic and plays well with Nixon's bullshit eulogy that follows soon after. This weird double-sense occurs in other fleeting moments: Hoover learning of the JFK assassination while listening to a hidden recording of Martin Luther King, Jr. having sex; Hoover channeling his paranoia and hatred into his "portrayal" of an angry black nationalist as he dictates a forged letter he will use to blackmail King into turning down the Nobel Peace Prize. The film's heavy focus on the Lindbergh baby case, and the media hype ("Trail of the century!" "Bigger than the Resurrection!") and hysterical demonstrations it inspires, slyly acts as an indictment of overheated law enforcement reactions to horrific but freak crimes like the Casey Anthony fiasco. I wouldn't expect these kinds of left-field approaches from an earnest filmmaker like Eastwood, and it's a shame they don't appear in the film more often.

The script's roteness and messy structure are fortunately surmountable by an able cast. DiCaprio sports an accent and cadence that grates early on, but eventually starts to feel natural. He spends much of his time channeling his legendary sternness, but is deft in his portrayal of Hoover's confused attraction to Tolson. Hammer's got a natural charm to him that is perfectly suited for the character, but is more often than not written as the movie's conscience, saddling him with a great deal of Very Important Dialogue that he isn't quite able to overcome. Judi Dench's turn as Hoover's (s)mother isn't bad--it's Judi Dench!--but not especially remarkable. Until late in the story she doesn't come off as especially overbearing, making Hoover's dependence on her all the stranger (did he really live with her until she died?). Rounding off the core cast is Naomi Watts as Hoover's loyal secretary Helen Gandy. After a spirited introduction with a date in the Library of Congress the character never becomes more than that, but Watts manages to give some dimension to a role that's largely functional. The aging effects and makeup used to take the actors through five decades is largely effective, with a couple exceptions. DiCaprio in his twilight years looks fantastic, but his face strangely suggests less J. Edgar than Herbert Hoover. And Hammer's, while not looking bad, makes him look too old, almost ghoulish. Looking at the two of them, it's a wonder that Hoover died first. When he does, it is actually quite affecting, thanks to Armie Hammer beneath a lot of latex.

So there you have it: a film that never becomes more the sum of its parts, but with some occasionally very good parts indeed. In a way it has a lot in common with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Both ambitiously tell a life story and utilize both cutting edge effects and clunky narrative devices and run into considerable problems doing so, and both faced a hostile response when released in the Oscar season (though Benjamin Button actually fared well with critics, which fueled its backlash). J. Edgar has an interesting story to tell, and manages to do enough interesting things amid its safe respectability to be a good investment of time and money, certainly more than one would have expected. Prestige pictures may perhaps be most vulnerable to a critical shellacking, given that they likely have a heavy overlap with people who actually read and take film criticism seriously, and it's a shame to see this film so disserviced.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Disconnect the Dots

Within evolutionary biological circles there was some controversy, decades ago, on the speed at which evolution and variation can occur. The late Stephen Jay Gould proposed his hypothesis of Punctuated Equilibrium, which said that in the Cambrian explosion (in a typical example), the sudden-seeming appearance in the fossil record of lifeforms considerably more complex than what came before, was the product of a sudden burst of evolutionary activity, as distinguished from the orthodoxy of evolutionary thinking that said evolution was ongoing and gradual. Rather than existing in a constant state of flux and branching off into new variants, Gould said, different species will remain stable for hundreds of thousands or millions of years, only to suddenly (geologically speaking) develop in new directions.

I bring this up in the context of Fred Kaplan's 1959: The Year Everything Changed due to the similarity in its thinking, as applied to developments in science, the arts, and politics more broadly in the last 50 years. As indicated by the subtitle, Kaplan believes 1959 was the pivotal year, the cultural crunch, that begot such innovations and changes as wide-ranging and varied as flash mobs, the Civil Rights movement, and New Journalism. He makes an engaging case, though not necessarily for this particular thesis.

It's not that Kaplan presents faulty evidence. The book is loaded with the goings-on of events more consequential than their obscurity would suggest. The early singles released by Berry Gordy's Tamla record label that would eventually become Motown Records shaped the early work of a Liverpool band originally called the Silver Beetles; John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me predicted a violent response by black Americans to their perennial underclass status anticipated the riots that followed the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. And so on.

The problem is that, for all the specificity suggested in pinning the year of change to 1959, the methodology employed is vague and loose. A chapter is given to the legal battle over publication of Lady Chatterly's Lover, which had been seized by the Post Office on grounds of obscenity. Kaplan presents the result, in favor of lifting the ban on the book, as "the beginning of the end" of bans on literature on the grounds of obscenity. Yet Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" had won a similar court victory just two years previous. Kaplan mentions it as background information, but doesn't elaborate on how the Lady Chatterly case is different, except perhaps in the latter book's more intentionally prurient nature.

Likewise, the chapter on "Howl" and the Beat Generation identifies Ginsberg's February 5 reading at Columbia University as a pivotal moment in the lead-up to the generational revolt of the 60s. The reading was sympathetically reviewed by for the Partisan Review by Diana Trilling, whose husband Lionel was emblematic of the stuffy, academic old guard about to be swept away by the insurgent beatniks. That her observation of the "unfathamable gap" between her experience at the reading and at home among her own social circle looks forward to the coming decade's generation gap is true. But does it outweigh in significance the publication and wild popularity of "Howl" or On the Road or any of the other moments that led to the Columbia reading?

To return to the talk on fossils and evolution--Kaplan is playing a half-hearted Gould, arguing basically:

Boring 1950s ------> 1959! ------> To the 60s, and beyond!!!

But his assessment doesn't quite live up to this. He can't just ignore precedents that would paint a more gradualist picture, only downplay them. But there they are, the dimmer stars in a night sky constellation, blotted by the light of 1959. It's isn't too damaging, as indeed the material is far too interesting to be neatly contained within the span of 365 days. The great use of the book is in illustrating the messy truth of history. Dividing it into various eras makes for a useful shorthand, but that is all. Human events rarely operate with fidelity to the rolling over a decade--indeed, this is the whole point of Kaplan's reaching further past the 60s into the supposedly drab 1950s to find the antecedents of many features of today's world. It is not surprising, then, that cultural change should not confine itself to a single year. That it goes further back than Kaplan wants to admit doesn't make him wrong, rather more right than he knows.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Out of Joint

My alarm clock squawks at me at 6:38 AM, a particular minute selected to leave me just enough time to get dressed, eat, and brush my teeth and be out the door to catch the three-minutes'-walk-away Metro to work at 7:05.

I dress and I eat and I brush and I'm gone. And I get to the Metro, and the escalators aren't working. And the metal gating is shut across the entrance at the bottom. It's unusual, I reason, but perhaps they don't open until just before the first train arrives. (At 7 AM on a Sunday, this kind of thinking makes sense.)

Looking past the escalators, I spy a guy waiting by the elevator. There's a little red light visible below the call button, indicating he's trying to get in touch with WMATA folk because there's a problem. Before long he gives up and walks off. Just after he leaves I hear some noise emanating from the call wall. I go over in the hopes of carrying the departed man's torch and finding out what's going on, but communication ceases just as I arrive.

I drift back to the escalator, wondering when they're going to open and if I'm going to need to catch the bus, and then the same crackle of static and unintelligible sound bursts from the call wall. Again I saunter over, and again I'm too late.

Now I'm getting concerned. I'm going to miss the train, it's almost (and I pull out my phone to see what time it is)--


And there's a moment of confusion, of displacement. whatwhatwhaaaaaat? And then, realization:


The idea that time could be changed by fiat has always seemed a little weird to me, but in reality it is both sensible--the 24 hour day is an invention of man, not a fact of nature, and as such is open to revision--and regular, as is collective ambivalence toward it. The New Republic thought President Bush and Congress's lame attempt to lower the nation's energy use by adjusting the duration of Daylight Savings Time and "changing time itself" was "unsettling and creepily disproportionate," and DST itself has come under close scrutiny since its inception.

Time and history itself have been subject to edicts of rulers and religions since, well, forever. Setting aside the multiplicity of calendars that exist across cultures (including the Mayans' whose ostensible end next year will doom us all), the passage and record of time has changed frequently within Western society. Pope Gregory VIII instituted a new calendar in 1582, but because England had by then become Protestant and contrary to papal edict, it continued using the Julian calendar until 1752, and lost 11 days in the process, going from September 2 to 14 in a moment, and moved the beginning of the year from March to January. The revolutionary government of France established a new chronology entirely, starting over with Year Zero, and instituting a new calendar of its own. Compared to these measures, Daylight Savings is mere technocratic tinkering.

Yet it's enough to offset; my feeling of displacement never quite leaves. I arrive at work earlier than usual, 7:30ish, but nobody else is there, and the kitchen is locked. It's not until just after 8 that I can get in and get started, and so everything gets off now to a late start. The morning flies, and after a brief lunch spasm of food traffic business trickles. I'm lucky to find some corn beef that needs slicing to keep me occupied for 45 minutes, after which I'm told to leave, around 3:30.

After picking up a book at the library I head across town and settle in to a cafe with the book and a $3.30 mocha to pass the time before the shift at my other job. As five o' clock nears, I start feeling increasingly anxious.

Don't I have somewhere to be? I check the time, and it's only five, I still have another hour before my shift starts. But if the regular flow of time had been maintained, if Daylight Savings hadn't set us all back, I would be starting the shift now. It's incredibly disorienting, like time travel with a dash of deja vu.

The sense of existing outside of time isn't novel--it's the reason for jet lag (travel by jet, of course, being a sign of man's mastery of nature that by crossing vast distances so quick he has managed to shrink time). But air travel is disruptive to one's routine, unless, of course, one is a pilot or stewardess. Daylight Savings upsets the hours of the day but leaves one's patterns of activity untouched. The surprise in being caught unawares after the changeover is what makes it different from voluntarily getting up earlier. The disconnect in the expectation and the actual result--of having, by realization, an extra hour that just before did not exist in one's mind--makes one acutely aware one's chronological position, as if flowing down the river of time one had gotten stuck against some branches or rocks and suddenly could stop and take stock of one's surroundings.

Not that in such a state one's sensitivity necessarily translates into accuracy. Before my shift started I was chatting with a co-worker. I checked the time, 5:45, and then continued talking. Eventually she asked what time it was, we would have to get going soon.

"5:51, I'll bet you," I said. If I've checked recently I'm usually pretty spot-on in my guestimation of how many minutes have elapsed. And yet, it was in reality only 5:47.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Born Back Ceaselessly Into the Past

I'm ashamed to say that before Wednesday I had never actually seen a Woody Allen film, no, not even Anne Hall. Given that Midnight in Paris is one of Allen's best received movies in a good while, this puts me in an odd position, unable as I am to comment on the film in the broader context of Allen's body of work as a whole. This certainly doesn't mean it can't be taken on its own, however. It stands on its own quite nicely, as an entertaining look at high culture that often only seems high due to the distancing and romanticizing afforded by the passage of time.

Owen Wilson plays Gil, a Hollywood script hack vacationing in Paris with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) and, high on the city's creative atmosphere, considers leaving showbiz behind to become a serious novelist, starting with his novel about a nostalgia shop owner that he hasn't let anyone read. One night he opts not to go dancing with Inez and her old pedantic douchebag friend Paul and his wife, and instead gets lost, only to be picked up at midnight by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and dropped into the literary social scene of the 1920s. Gil begins meeting with his favorite artists and authors every night, which fuels a surge of creativity, and starts to fall for Picasso's "art groupie" Adriana (Marion Cotillard).

Wilson's made a career out of being a goofball, which can make it hard to buy him as artsy writer, but his "gee wiz!" expressions when he actually meets his literary idols work to his advantage. Cotillard makes a good love interest, intelligent and eye-catching. They do most of the heavy lifting, having to compete against the outsized personas of the early 20th century's greatest artists, many of them caricatures based on their reputations and style; Corey Stoll's Ernest Hemingway is heroic, clipped, masculine ("If it's bad, I'll hate it. If it's good, then I'll be envious and hate it even more."). Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) punctuates his dialogue with "old sport," and Adrian Brody's take on Salvador Dali is, well, eccentric.

It's fun stuff, which is the point of a concept that is to an extent playing in a literary sandbox. The film wisely doesn't bother explaining how or why a time warp appears at midnight; it just does, and it's wonderful. But the tone is not exclusively fanboy gushing. As the story goes on the film smartly turns its greatest draw on itself: 'wouldn't it be awesome to go back in the past, which was so much better?' becomes 'was the past really so much better?' It's a good examination of nostalgia and the notion of a Golden Age of anything, which has particular salience after a decade whose pop culture has more and more been defined by cannibalizing the past, whether that be in adaptations of 80s cartoons into movies, Guitar Hero, or Lady Gaga.

This stance does put the film in a strange position, tut-tutting those who would indulge nostalgia even as it depends on nostalgia for its appeal and humor. There's a good laugh had in know-it-all Paul smarmily defining nostalgia as an "erroneous," "rose-tinted" notion, but in the end the movie comes around to saying he was basically right. It's not a fatal problem, more an interesting tension, but a tension all the same.

Aside from a few minor issues (the present-day side plot dealing with Gil and Inez's relationship is subordinate enough that the incredible nature of their woeful mismatching is indeed a minor issue), the movie accomplishes what it sets out to do: provide a breezy literary fantasy for the college-educated, with a little thematic heft. It's middle-brow, maybe, but very accomplished and funny middle-brow all the same.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

If You Get Naked in the Airport, Then the Terrorists Win

I just got patted down at the airport. Twice.

My mum's vacationing in the Cape Cod area, and I'm going to spend a couple days in Provincetown visiting. I arrived at Reagan Airport, ate some lunch I had brought with me, and then got in line at the security checkpoint. I opted out of the body scanner machine with the vague idea that on some level seeing a fellow passenger treated like a criminal suspect would register with the other fliers the invasiveness and stupidity of the whole process.

The pat-down went as well as it could; the TSA officer told me to put my arms out "like you're flying." When I put them straight ahead--I thought he meant as if I were holding a steering instrument, honestly--he clarified. "No, I meant flying, like in Titanic."

We all laughed, me, the officer, and another TSA officer rifling through my backpack. It admittedly wasn't the most appropriate thing to do at the time, but given the inappropriateness of the security process to begin with, there can't be said to be any single standard. Then the other officer, asked, "You had a bottle in your bag, sir?"

I had brought a NAKED Juice with me, having forgotten about the stupid liquids rule. It's not that I didn't know it, I can't bring my acne treatment with me for that reason, but in getting my lunch it'd slipped my mind. The officer asked me if I wanted to just throw it away or to go back out and drink it.

"I have to go through security again?"


It's bad enough to have to drink my juice earlier than I wanted, but to have to go through the whole ridiculous security theater again? What is this supposed to do? How does it make us any safer? If a would-be terrorist were so inclined, he could detonate an explosive within an airport, in a security line say, and still inflict considerable damage and casualties. What difference to anyone except the food vendors does it make if I drink my juice after the security checkpoint?

So not wanting to let a good drink go to waste and intending to see my half-assed protest through to the end, I went out, downed the bottle, and proceeded through security, and the pat-down once more.

Don't you feel safer?